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Is Driver Training Preparing Teens for the Road?

‘I Drive Smart,’ run by off-duty cops, looks to raise the bar for driver education.

The reason Tom Pecoraro and Paul Starks started I Drive Smart—a new driving school taught entirely by police officers—is the same reason they entered law enforcement in the first place.

“You like doing it or you have a passion for doing it but also it serves a common good. And that’s the reason why we’re in it,” Pecoraro said. “It’s a business that we like but also we know [a lot] as a result of our experience as police officers: we drive through it, we know a lot about it, we know about drugs and alcohol, we know what happens.”

In the spring of 2003 they started to develop I Drive Smart. The school began conducting classes in May of this year.

Both men are active-duty Montgomery County Police officers, as are 33 of the school’s 34 instructors (one is retired). The business has been approved by ethics board at Montgomery County Police.

They boast that they have 40 years of law enforcement experience between them and that the full staff has more than 600 cumulative years. Many of the instructors arrive for class in police cruisers.

Pecoraro and Starks are careful not to disparage their competition. They think they’re offering something extra, but they won’t say more about the marketplace than a few simple facts. Montgomery County has 29 MVA-certified commercial driving schools, and the state of Maryland has 180, according to the MVA. There is exactly one state-certified inspector to verify that each of these schools is meeting the strict standards imposed by the MVA. The position pays $17 an hour, they say.

Parents of children at some schools have complained that their teens did not even receive the full 30 classroom and six behind-the-wheel hours that the state requires for licensure from other programs.

“We had tried another school. It was really disorganized and it wasn’t in good shape. [My wife] did a little more research and this is what she found,” said Nathan Siu, whose daughter Carolyn recently completed her classroom hours in a session taught at Wootton.

“As a parent, why not? Given the choices that a parent has for a commercial drivers ed in the area, why not pick to have a police officer to be alone with your son or daughter for two hours rather than someone else,” Starks said.

Amy Ellard, a 15-year-old sophomore at Churchill said she took the “I Drive Smart” class because her mother is a cop. “She wanted me to learn from police officers,” Amy said. “I feel like I learned a lot. Because there are so many little things that you don’t know.”

Wearing civilian clothes and interacting in a relaxed environment changes the dynamic between cops and teens, Pecoraro said. “Mostly police work is punitive,” he said. “You’re getting a ticket, you’re getting arrested, there’s some kind of dispute or whatever. What this is, it’s kind of the best of both worlds. You’re getting that experience but it’s in a positive environment. You’re taking the punitive out of it.”

Like many of the officers, Pecoraro, a father of five, is motivated by his own experience.

“I still remember, 18 years ago, the very first fatal accident that I was on,” Pecoraro said. “It was a 16-year-old teenager and a 65-year-old citizen [who were both killed]. … It was 2 in the morning. It was on a cold night. I can describe it to you perfectly. I can also describe to you numerous death notifications where I’m knocking on the door, looking through the window, seeing people come to the door or talking before I knock on the door, knowing that I’m going to change these people’s lives forever. The second that door opens, their lives are changed.”

The $469 price tag for the course is relatively high, but within the price range of other programs.

“Although it’s a state-mandated curriculum, we can add so much to it. … People have to take [driver’s education] a lot more seriously,” Pecoraro said.

In addition to “putting meat on the bone” of the MVA-curriculum, Pecoraro and Starks envision a culture change when it comes to driver education. They believe that developing safe drivers should start earlier--with positive modeling and verbal instruction from parents starting at age 13—and continue through age 18.

“It’s got to start earlier. You don’t decide that you want to go to college when you’re in your second semester of your senior year in high school. … Well people need to start talking about driving when kids are in 8th and 9th grade, when they’re 12 and 13, and start getting them ready for the responsibilities,” Pecoraro said.

“We can make a difference,” Starks said. “We can save lives. We’re sure of it. It’s going to be very hard to track. But we know we can have an impact and then a family maybe won’t have an empty place at the dinner table.”